Voters will be presented with a referendum calling for the construction of seven casinos this November, and the language surrounding the measure is wrapped in language designed to make voters think that the bill is a no-brainer. The Associated Press is reporting that the referendum’s language, which promises jobs, lower taxes and money for schools, is being questioned by good-government advocacy groups.
The casino issue creeped forward earlier this year, with legislators approving the expansion for the second year in a row, clearing the way for a voter referendum on the measure. If voters give the green light, seven new casinos will be authorized in New York State, with no specific locations yet revealed. Although the governor said the first round of three casinos would all be upstate, Coney Island has been floated as a potential site in the second phase. Winners of bids to build casinos would have to pay the state an upfront fee of $50 million and then fork over 25 percent of all future gambling revenues.
In an editorial, we argued against the referendum. We cited studies that do not guarantee the boosts to local economies exuberantly promised by proponents. We also noted the destructive impact that increased gambling addiction would have on taxpayer’s wallets, and we questioned the motives of lobbying interests rushing lawmakers to craft a referendum.
Now, as the referendum draws near in November, the AP noted that voters will be faced with the following loaded language, a stark contrast to earlier efforts:
“The proposed amendment to section 9 of article 1 of the Constitution would allow the Legislature to authorize up to seven casinos in New York State for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated. Shall the amendment be approved?”
By comparison, an early draft mirrored most of New York’s dry, if dense, referenda. Before it was recast by Cuomo and the Legislature, the referendum stated simply: “The purpose of the proposed amendment to section 9 of article 1 of the constitution is to allow the Legislature to authorize and regulate up to seven casinos. If approved, the amendment would permit commercial casino gambling in New York state.”
Referenda are supposed summarize a law passed by the Legislature to change the constitution. The added benefits of tax breaks and school aid, however, aren’t listed in the law.
In response to such language, good-government advocates are issuing warnings that voters are potentially being taken down a primrose path:
“It has more spin than a roulette wheel,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
The optimistic theme of the referendum makes no mention that those claims are disputed by some researchers and doesn’t note the decline of some casinos from New Jersey’s Atlantic City to those run by Indian tribes, or the rise in problem gambling that can shatter families and increase crime…
“This one seems particularly heavily spun,” said Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz. “I don’t think there’s anything illegal about it … it’s OK, but I don’t think it’s good.”
He noted, for example, that the other four constitutional questions to be put to voters on the November ballot don’t read as advocacy to persuade voters. Those involve Adirondack land swaps, sewer projects and allowing judges to serve up to 80 years old.
Benjamin said a group could sue over the casino referendum language, but neither law nor the constitution requires an objective presentation of an issue to voters.
A report by Times Union noted that in the case of the upcoming casino referendum, both advocates and opponents have been left curiously silent on the issue. The silence of advocates is believed to be attributed to their confidence that the measure will pass. Poll numbers researched by the Siena Research Institute found that 49 percent of voters support some expansion of full-scale gambling, while 42 percent oppose it. The lack of noise from opposition groups has been chalked up to lack of money to bring the issue to the public’s attention:
Opponents of the expansion will be active in the weeks ahead, though they say activities aren’t expected to get too intense.
“I’m surprised so far by the lack of organized opposition,” said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values. “There seems to be a kind of passivity, and I’m not sure where it’s coming from.”
Stephen Shafer of the Coalition Against Gambling in New York said his small organization would be writing letters and giving interviews. “But we simply don’t have an advertising budget, so we’re kind of going hat in hand,” he said.
Dennis Poust, spokesman for the state Catholic Conference, said its member bishops plan to discuss the referendum at their meeting later this month in New York City. The church’s leaders have expressed worry about anything that increases addictive gambling, and view gaming as a regressive tax on the poor.
Still, despite the relative quiet on the issue, Shafer was adamant that the referendum’s language was misleading.
“The deceptive wording of this amendment on the ballot and the advancement of this late entry to ‘number one’ position are obvious moves to misinform and bias voters. New Yorkers deserve better from our legislative leaders,” Shafer told the AP.